The Religion in American History Blog has a discussion question on their Facebook page about theories that guide scholars work. Kelly Baker asked, “How do you all approach American Religious History? What methods, theories or theorists guide your work?”
I posted an answer there but I thought I’d copy it here as well. What about you? What are your guiding lights for your work, religious studies or otherwise?
Here are the three strands I try to pull together in my approach to American religious history:
1) Emile Durkheim: Those who know where I am and who I’m working with ought not be surprised here. The category of “the sacred,” for me, offers a chance to look at a whole host of things previously left unconsidered in American religious history. Burning Man, sports, and all the other usual examples are just the start. Recent work on Oprah points the way to more and more places we can reconsider “American Sacred History.”
2) Thomas A.Tweed’s Crossing and Dwelling: I really like Tweed’s focus on positionality and his focus on the movement and motion of religions. I think it adds a dynamism to our study that has been lost in an under-theorized notion of culture and snapshot approach to religions.
3) Foucault, Said, and post-colonial theory generally:
In thinking about religions in American history I’m always wanting to find ways to rigorously account for power. In my current diss. research on representations of Hinduism in America I’m realizing more and more the ways “religion” as a category functioned in the deployment, maintenance and organization of power. I think religious historians are often wary of reducing religions down to “just power” without thinking about the ways religions function to channel power, resist power, and basically move it around and (dis?)organize it.
So, that’s my triparte answer. Wow, Kelly, really good question. I’ve never thought it through like this. Helpful.